Warship Wednesday, July 5, 2017: HMs Cruiser Bruiser
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, July 5, 2017: HMs Cruiser Bruiser
Here we see the Queen Elizabeth-class battleship HMS Valiant as she fires a 15″ broadside, July 1944, against Japanese port and oil facilities on Sabang Island off the northern tip of Sumatra during Operation Crimson. At this stage of her life, the battlewagon was 30~years young and had survived massive fleet actions against the Kaiser’s High Seas Fleet in the Great War and Mussolini’s Regina Marine in WWII. An enforcer at the surrender of both of those fleets, she would be cruelly cheated of attending a third.
A member of the very successful Queen Elizabeth-class of “super-dreadnought,” they were fast for their day (24-knots), well-armored with as much as 13-inches of KC in their belt, tower, and turrets; and packed a punch from eight massive BL 15 inch (381mm) Mk I naval guns in four twin turrets.
The Mk I, described by Navweaps as “quite possibly the best large-caliber naval gun ever developed by Britain and it was certainly one of the longest-lived of any nation, with the first shipboard firing taking place in 1915 and the last in 1954,” was a bruiser capable of firing a 1-ton shell out to 33,550 yards and could well-outrange most German naval guns. Some 184 of these guns were made by Armstrong Whitworth, W Beardmore, Vickers, Royal Gun Factory, and Coventry Ordnance Works, serving on just about every subsequent British battleship design. The guns were rotated between ships, having a life of about 200 rounds before requiring relining, and one that served on Valiant during Jutland later wound up being captured by the Japanese at Singapore where it was serving as shore-mounted coastal artillery.
But we are getting far ahead of ourselves.
The hero of our story was the fifth RN vessel named HMS Valiant in a line that included three different 18th/19th Century third-rate 74-gun ships of the line, and a Hector-class ironclad battleship that remained afloat for 90 years.
Ordered from Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. (Govan, Scotland), in 1912 for £2,357,037, HMS Valiant (pennant 02) was commissioned 13 January 1916 and joined the Grand Fleet’s 5th Battle Squadron—under the command of Rear Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas– along with three of her sisters, HMS Barham, HMS Malaya, and HMS Warspite. The quartet, with 32 15-inch and 56 6-inch guns between them, was a force to be reckoned with.
At the lowest part of the Battle of Jutland for the British, moments after the battlecruisers HMS Indefatigable and Queen Mary had exploded, the 5th Battle Squadron intervened against the German I Scouting Group under Adm. Franz von Hipper and let the 15-inchers do their talking. In very short order, they damaged the battlecruisers SMS Lützow and Seydlitz, and several other German warships.
In very short order on 31 May, at 18:13, a 15-inch shell from one of the Queen Elizabeths struck Lützow; two more hits came at 18:25 and 18:30. Between 18:09 and 18:19, Seydlitz was hit by a 15-inch from either Barham or Valiant, striking the face of the port wing turret and disabling the guns. A second 15-inch shell penetrated the already disabled aft super firing turret and detonated the cordite charges that had not already burned. The ship also had two of her 150 mm guns disabled from British gunfire, and the rear turret lost its right-hand gun. Not bad for 20~ minutes of work.
Lutzow eventually sank while Seydlitz limped back to port, her decks nearly awash. While each of the big German battlecruisers took immense damage from other British sluggers besides Valiant and her sisters, Hipper felt their sting.
While a number of her sisters took hits at Jutland, Valiant came through unscathed, having fired 288 15-inch shells over more than eight hours of the engagement. Her very enlightening Captain’s dispatch from the battle is here and is worth reading, as he reports several instances of German salvos coming within 10 yards and a torpedo only missing by 100. Not bad for a ship on her shakedown cruise just a few months before with a “green” crew.
Suffering a collision with Warspite in August 1916, she spent the rest of the year in drydock under repair
The Great War spun down when it came to surface naval actions after Jutland, and Valiant only met the Germans again when the High Seas Fleet sortied at the end of the war to be interred at Scapa.
Assigned to the 1st Battle Squadron, Valiant and her sisters remained in the Atlantic Fleet, then transferred to the Med in 1924.
Modernized in two extended periods, one from 1929-30 and another from 1937-39, she bulked up due to anti-torpedo bulges, changed her catapults and several minor topside features, lost her torpedo tubes and a couple of her casemated 6-inch mounts in exchange for 20x 4.5-inch high angles and AAA guns, and had her machinery upgraded to help mitigate the extra tonnage, now over 36,500-tons in full load.
Still, even with her new engines, she could only make 23.5 knots when wide open. She also picked up a Type 79Z search radar, one of the first fitted in the fleet.
World War II found her still under refit at Devonport, and she was only commissioned 30 November 1939, Captain Henry Bernard Rawlings, OBE, RN, in command.
She was immediately used to help escort the vital convoy TC 3, carrying some 8,000 Canadian soldiers, she sailed from Halifax in January 1940, ensuring the Canucks made it past the threat of German surface raiders.
Through March and into April, Valiant, along with HMS Hood, Rodney, and Warspite, escorted the Norwegian convoys ON 17, ON 17A, HN 17, HN 20, and ON 21. On 7 April, Valiant only just missed tangling with SMS Hipper, fresh off ramming the plucky destroyer Glowworm.
Valiant was to spend the next two months in and out of Norwegian waters, providing AAA cover for the fleet, tasking for naval gunfire support at Narvik (suspended at the last minute), and escorting the withdrawing convoys after the defeat there in June.
Then Valiant was attached to Force H and sent to the Med, where Churchill worried the Vichy French fleet, just pulled out of the war, would be a threat to the RN.
On 3 July, Valiant, along with Hood, Resolution, the carrier Ark Royal, and the light cruisers HMS Arethusa and Enterprise, stood just offshore of Mers-el-Kebir harbor and the battleships fired 36 salvos of 15-inch shells at the French fleet from extreme range, destroying the battleship Bretagne and severely damaging several other French ships including the battleship Dunkerque, the flag of Admiral Gensoul. Dubbed Operation Catapult, the controversial one-sided “battle” was to leave 1,300 dead French sailors behind.
Over the next several months, Valiant, as part of Force H and later Force F, helped keep the supply lines open from Portsmouth to Gibraltar to Malta and Alexandria, shuttling convoys and dodging Italian and German planes and warships.
In September 1940, she escorted the carrier HMS Illustrious in her famous raid on the Italian port of Benghazi. The next month, she provided cover for convoy MB-6 to Malta. The saga of the RN’s Mediterranean Fleet in 1940-41.
This came to a head at the three-day Battle of Cape Matapan in March 1941 near Crete, then a plump target for the Axis. Adm. Sir Andrew Cunningham’s force, comprising Valiant and her sisters Barham and Warspite, along with the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable and a gaggle of light cruisers and destroyers, faced the Italian force under Adm. Iachino consisting of the sexy new battleship Vittorio Veneto, three very large heavy cruisers, and a force of light cruisers and destroyers.
How big were those Italian stallions? The Zara, Fiume, and Pola were sister ships, built for the Italian Regina Marina in the 1930s to a design that surpassed Naval Treaty limits (14,500-tons, 8x203mm guns, 5.9-inches of armor, 32 knots) and was impressive.
So, were a spaghetti battleship and a three-pack of heavy cruisers enough for a trio of Queen Elizabeth-class dreadnoughts of Jutland vintage?
Pola picked up a mobility kill from a torpedo from a Swordfish torpedo bomber launched by Formidable while Zara and Fiume were detached from the rest of the fleet to protect Pola, and all three and a pair of destroyers were sunk in a close-range night engagement with the battleships Barham, Valiant, and Warspite at a range of just 3,000-yards. Italian casualties were very heavy, with 783 killed aboard Zara, 328 killed aboard Pola, 812 aboard Fiume. The destroyers Vittorio Alfieri and Giosué Carducci also vanished that night. The Brits removed the entire 1a Divisione Incrociatori from the Italian Naval List before breakfast.
Prince Phillip, then a junior officer on Valiant, commanded a searchlight from our subject during the night action. After he had located one target, he said: “At this point, all hell broke loose, as all our eight 15-inch guns, plus those of the flagship and Barham‘s started firing at the stationary cruiser, which disappeared in an explosion and a cloud of smoke.” He was later awarded the Greek War Cross of Valour.
Valiant made it through the battle but picked up two German 500-pound bombs the next month for her trouble off Crete.
Air attack was a constant threat in the Med during the period.
Classmate HMS Barham, who Valiant fought alongside at Jutland and Cape Matapan, was sunk off the Egyptian coast by the German submarine U-331 with the loss of 862 crewmen, approximately two-thirds of her crew, on 25 November 1941.
The tragic sequence of her turning turtle and exploding is well-known.
The Italians would soon get revenge of their own on Valiant and her sister, Queen Elizabeth.
On the night of 18/19 December 1941, six Italian Navy divers of the Decima Flottiglia MAS, working from three chariot-type human torpedoes (termed maiali–pigs– by their users), worked their way past the British defenses at Alexandria and found the two battleships at anchor. Lt. Luigi Durand de la Penne pressed his SLC (maiale nº 221) to Valiant while his swim buddy, Emilio Bianchi, was otherwise out of action with a bad regulator on his rebreather, and placed the Siluro a Lenta Corsa (slow-running torpedo) just under the old battleship’s hull.
Surfaced, he and Bianchi were captured as they waited by a buoy and taken aboard the targeted ship, placed coincidentally over the ticking mine they had just deposited. Warning the Valiant‘s skipper moments before the human torpedo went off, the frogmen were brought back on deck just in time to see the other mines explode under Queen Elizabeth, Norwegian tanker Sagona and destroyer HMS Jervis.
A fairly decent dramatization, showing the correct use of an SLC with its 600-pound detachable limpet mine warhead, planted under Valiant‘s A turret.
Valiant and her sister took on water and came very near to rest on the bottom of Alexandria, but did not technically sink and were repaired. Even Jervis eventually went back into action. However, putting the two battlewagons off-line for several months did throw British Naval supremacy in the Med at a crucial time before the U.S. made it to the theater.
When Churchill received news of the attack, he said, “Six Italians, dressed in rather unusual diving suits and equipped with materials of laughably little cost, have swung the military balance of power in the Mediterranean in favor of the Axis.”
Valiant was towed to Admiralty Floating Dock 5 two days later for dewatering and was under repair at Alexandria until April 1942 when she sailed to Durban, South Africa, where she operated with Force B off Africa in exercises for the defense of East Africa and operations against Vichy-held Madagascar.
June 1943 found her back in the Med with Force H, supporting the invasion of Sicily where she bombarded Italian 155mm coastal batteries south of Reggio and covered the landings at Salerno Bay. Fending off Italian and German air attacks, on 9 September Valiant, along with sister Warspite and a force of destroyers and light cruisers were detailed to Operation Gibbon, the surrender of the Italian Navy.
Off Cape de Garde, Algeria they met two battleships, three cruisers, and eight destroyers who sailed from La Spezia to be interred and escorted them to Malta. Missing from the Italian battleline was the new battleship Roma, which the Germans had sunk via Fritz-X guided bomb.
Valiant‘s last engagement in Europe was an NGFS mission against the town of Nocera, and a nearby road junction, firing 19 rounds of 15-inch from a range of approximately 28,000 yards on 16 September.
She was then recalled to Scapa to begin working up for the RN’s “pivot to Asia” and she soon shipped for the Indian Ocean where she joined the British Eastern Fleet, built around the carriers HMS Illustrious, USS Saratoga (who along with three U.S. destroyers formed Task Group 58.5), HMS Formidable, the battlecruiser HMS Renown, the French battleship Richelieu and Valiant‘s sister Queen Elizabeth.
Getting ready for the continued push East, in August 1944, the venerable battleship was damaged in a drydock accident at Trincomalee, Ceylon, requiring her to return to England for extensive repairs that lasted into 1946, sadly missing out in the last chapter of the conflict.
In August 1946, she was relegated to a harbor training ship for stoker ratings at Devonport. In this inactive pier-side role, she was stripped of her name and took the traditional training establishment title of HMS Imperieuse. However, she would only fulfill this role for about 20 months, for she was sold to BISCO on 19 March 1948 for her value in scrap by the ton. The hard-fighting ship arrived at the Breaker’s yard at Caimryan on 12 August and was slowly dismantled over the next year.
Her three remaining sisters, Queen Elizabeth, Warspite, and Malaya, suffered similar fates.
Valiant‘s name was continued in British service by the class-leading nuclear-powered attack submarine HMS Valiant (S102), commissioned in 1966 and paid off in 1994 (though still in storage); as well as the 140-foot Border Agency (Customs) cutter HMC Valiant, commissioned in 2004.
Valiant is also remembered in maritime art.
Prince Philip, current Duke of Edinburgh, and long-time consort of Queen Elizabeth II remains as one of Valiant‘s last remaining crew members at age 96, and is currently Lord High Admiral of the Royal Navy, though he is set to retire from his official duties sometime this fall. As such, he is likely the last WWII battleship sailor anywhere still on the active list.
32,590 long tons (33,110 t)
33,260 long tons (33,790 t) (Deep load)
Length: 643 ft. 9 in (196.2 m)
Beam: 90 ft. 7 in (27.6 m)
Draught: 33 ft. (10.1 m)
75,000 shp (56,000 kW)
24 Yarrow boilers
2 Steam turbine sets
Speed: 24 knots (44 km/h; 28 mph)
Range: 5,000 nmi (9,260 km; 5,750 mi) at 12 knots (22 km/h; 14 mph)
Radar: Type 273 SR(Surface Radar) on the foremast, a Type SR (Surface Radar) 284 radar on the LA DCT (Low Angle Director Control Tower), and a Type HA (High Angle) 285 on each of the HA DCT’s, a Type 291 AW (Air Warning) on the mastheads and an IFF interrogator.
Aircraft: 2-3 floatplanes
4 × twin 15-inch (381 mm) guns
14 × single 6-inch (152 mm) guns
2 × single 3-inch (76 mm) 20 cwt AA guns
4 × 21-inch (533 mm) torpedo tubes
4 × twin 15-inch (381 mm) guns
10 × twin 4.5 in (114 mm) Dual-purpose guns
4 × octuplet QF 2-pdr (40 mm) AA guns
26 × twin Oerlikon 20 mm (0.8 in) AA guns
4 × quadruple Vickers 0.5 in (12.7 mm) AA machineguns
Armor: Krupp cemented armor (KC)
Waterline belt: 13 in (330 mm)
Deck: 1–3 in (25–76 mm)
Barbettes: 7–10 in (178–254 mm)
Gun turrets: 11–13 in (279–330 mm)
Conning tower: 13 in (330 mm)
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